Fest extends brand into plethora of sectors

“Change or die.”

That may be the expression that best reflects the Tribeca network of institutions and the shifting landscape that encompasses it.

“Isn’t that the expression,” ponders Jane Rosenthal, who co-founded Tribeca Prods. 23 years ago, the Tribeca Film Festival a decade ago, and, more recently, an entire group of related organizations, including a festival in Qatar and a U.S. distribution arm. “We have tried to consistently evolve and develop new initiatives to serve our filmmakers and our audiences.”

Rosenthal’s interest in constantly evolving the Tribeca brand dates back to her earliest years in the business, when she moved to New York and launched Tribeca Prods. with Robert De Niro.

“While I was waiting for L.A. to wake up, we built the Tribeca Film Center and did lots of other things,” she says, including the launch of a restaurant, the Tribeca Grill, and a screening series for independent films called First Look. “It was always very much about community.”

While the Tribeca festival was erected in 2001 to bring New Yorkers together in the wake of 9/11, Tribeca’s newest endeavors, such as its distribution entity, Tribeca Film, are more aimed at the changing needs of the filmmaking and filmgoing communities.

“We looked at the way the business is changing so radically, and we thought what can we do, as a company, to personalize, customize and develop new platforms, create new opportunities for producers and try to take advantage of the chaos that’s going on in the industry,” she says.

Tribeca’s distribution outfit launched just last year with the release of 10 films on VOD, some of which were shown in limited theatrical release. The unit is ramping up significantly in year two, more than doubling its output to 26 films, many of which are going out more aggressively in theaters.”

“None of us have distribution backgrounds,” admits Nancy Schafer, exec director of the film festival and senior VP of Tribeca Enterprises, “but we’ve all been studying it for a long time.”

The company has recruited an estimable team, however, to help broaden the reach of the Tribeca brand, including former Sundance head Geoffrey Gilmore as chief creative officer; IFC Films veteran Todd Green as distribution VP and general manager; ex-Revolver buyer Nick Savva as acquisitions director; and distribution vet Mark Urman, whose Paladin acts as a theatrical releasing partner.

Gilmore says Tribeca is looking to be identified with a broad spectrum of films that embodies their “curatorial vision,” from mainstream movies (“Last Night,” “The Bang Bang Club”) and genre films (“Grave Encounters”) to art films (“Neds,” “Essential Killing”) and sports-related content, with partner ESPN. “It’s eclectic, but we’re very concerned with the quality of the work,” he says.

While the first slate of films made only a minor dent in the marketplace, Schafer says cable operators were satisfied with the numbers. “We had some good markers of success,” she adds, citing a three-year video output deal with New Video. According to Rosenthal and Schafer, the company’s VOD buys extended beyond Gotham, where the Tribeca brand is obviously most familiar, also performing in rural areas.

Tribeca may be entering an extremely competitive field, particularly the increasingly crowded VOD space, but it benefits from major support by American Express, which not only backs the film festival, but also lends its marketing oomph to Tribeca Film releasing across all of its platforms.

If Tribeca Film may not yet have the reach of an IFC Films or Magnolia Pictures — two distributors that Rosenthal references for their similar willingness to experiment — its marketing savvy gives the company a leg-up. (It’s hard to beat those witty ads with De Niro and Martin Scorsese.)

Paradigm’s Ben Weiss, who sold U.S. rights of the indie pic “Beware the Gonzo” to Tribeca Film last year, says the company’s “marketing and sponsorship opportunities were very attractive to us and ultimately swayed us to sign with them.”

While many in the business say it’s too early to judge Tribeca’s distribution efforts, they are being carefully watched as a viable fledgling player. “They’re trying to be competitive,” says Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun. “They’re not necessarily going to the higher range of bigger distributors, but they’re actually putting up decent numbers.”

But with so much going on under the Tribeca umbrella — it also has a private screening space for rental; Tribeca Cinemas; an investment in Tribeca Flashpoint, a digital media arts school in Chicago, among other educational initiatives; and then there’s the completely separate nonprofit Tribeca Institute — Schafer says, “There’s a risk of diluting the brand, and we worry about it.”

But not too much.

“We haven’t really sought a comfort zone,” says Rosenthal. “Have we tried to experiment and evolve? Absolutely. That’s part of any new business.”

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